Women are People, Too

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Catherine Allgor is a Professor of History at the University of California at Riverside and an advisor to the National Women's History Museum.  Her latest book is "The Queen of America: Mary Cutts's Life of Dolley Madison" (University of Virginia Press, 2012).

Mitt and Ann Romney in Altoona, Iowa, in 2007. Credit: Wikipedia.

Last week, Ann Romney appealed to American women as mothers, wives, sisters, and daughters. In this, Mrs. Romney was partaking of an age-old tradition and making a pretty good bet. Most women fall in at least one of those categories.

Declaring that it is "the moms of this nation, single, married, widowed, who really hold the country together," the aspiring First Lady meant to be complimentary. But appealing to us as wives and mothers -- that's how we got in trouble in the first place.

In 1776, the Founding Fathers were contemplating more than a break from Great Britain; they were envisioning a world made new. They imagined a modern nation based on liberty and equality. In July of that year, they would put that vision to paper: "All men are created equal."

But in April of 1776, as they moved inexorably to declaring independence, the wife of another man from Massachusetts wrote to her husband, bidding him "in the new code of laws which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make, I desire you would remember the ladies and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors."

Abigail Adams was drafting a different kind of declaration of independence, one not fully understood by modern Americans. When she begged John, "Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the husbands," she was not asking for the vote.

What she was asking for was an alleviation of coverture, the legal stricture that stated that no wife had a political identity. Instead, they were "covered women," subsumed under their husband's identity. Upon marriage, husband and wife became one, and that one was the husband. As a symbol of this female invisibility, a woman took her husband's last name.

Because they did not legally exist, married women could not make contracts or be sued, so they could not own or work in businesses. Married women owned nothing, not even the clothes on their backs. Under coverture, men had the full rights to "the fruits" of female bodies, including women's children and sexuality. Not only could husbands hire out wifely labor and keep the money, if a wife divorced or left her husband -- or he left her -- she might never see her children again. Coverture assumed a wife’s consent, so under the law, all sex-related activity, including rape, was legitimate.

John Adams didn't get it either. Abigail's warning that "all men would be tyrants if they could" went unheeded. He treated her concerns as a joke, teasing that the law gave women little power because nature gave them so much. A good wife, John countered, could always control a man, "through the despotism of the petticoat." Who needed the protection of law when you had sex as a bargaining chip?

So when the time came, in 1776, and for decades after, to "form a more perfect union," the men of the founding generation could not bring themselves to allow women into the body politic as free and equal citizens. Following their hero, John Locke, who supplied the rhetoric of revolution, women weren't women, they were wives. And wives obeyed not the state, but their husbands. They didn't even enjoy "second-class citizenship"; wives had to go steerage in the ship of state.

No one can blame Ann Romney for not knowing this painful history of American women. She probably never heard the word "coverture" nor has she had to come to terms with the fact that American women entered the greatest experiment in human liberty in a virtual legal slavery.

Most Americans share her lack of knowledge. They don't know that we have never abolished coverture completely and vestiges linger in our law books, throwing up unexpected roadblocks in women's progress toward full citizenship. Not dealing with coverture in the way we dealt with slavery is why American women who married the wrong kind of immigrant lost their citizenship up until the 1920s, why they did not regularly serve on juries until the 1960s, and why marital rape was not a crime until the 1980s.

Giving American women the political equality shared by women in Japan and Afghanistan (both countries grant women constitutional equality) wouldn't solve all our problems, but it would go a long way to bringing all those women that we clapped for last night closer to their American dream.

We are not just the mothers, wives, sisters, and daughters of Americans. We are Americans, too. Treat us with love, treat us with respect, but treat us as people.

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